Where the past is still present: Battle of Bladensburg Visitors Center opens its doors

September 10, 2012

BY PAULA MINAERT — On August 24, 1814, American soldiers, sailors and Marines met invading British troops in the town of Bladensburg. The places they fought are familiar to us today: the East Branch of the Anacostia River, Bunker Hill Road, 40th Avenue.

Though the American troops outnumbered the British, they were undertrained and poorly equipped. By four o’clock that afternoon, they were forced to retreat and the British marched on to Washington, where they burned the city ─ the low point of the War of 1812, at least from the Yanks’ perspective.

On August 24, 2012, local, county and state representatives gathered at Bladensburg Waterfront Park for the formal opening of the Battle of Bladensburg Visitors Center. It was the culmination of more than two years of work by a coalition of local groups, including town leaders and the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. It was also part of a statewide, multi-year celebration of the bicentennial of the War of 1812.

Soldier's uniforms and the star-spangled banner await visitors to the Battle of Bladensburg Visitors Center. Photo courtesy Prince George's County Department of Parks and Recreation.

Soldier’s uniforms and the star-spangled banner await visitors to the Battle of Bladensburg Visitors Center. Photo courtesy Prince George’s County Department of Parks and Recreation.

Elizabeth Hewlett, chair of M-NCPPC’s Prince George’s County Planning Board, spoke at the ribbon-cutting ceremony. The battle, she said, had a pivotal role in the war, and led to fighting further north in Baltimore, victory at Fort McHenry and the writing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Hewlett explained that the center’s mission is to “educate visitors about the war [,] inform them of the role Prince George’s County and the Battle of Bladensburg played in the war, and encourage visitors and residents to visit historic sites in the county that figured in the conflict.”

Another speaker, Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker, said the center is “equally important for its economic development potential within the Port Towns and throughout the county to increase heritage tourism – one of the largest sectors of employment in the United States.”

On Saturday, August 25, the center held about a grand opening for the public that drew about 400 people, despite the constant threat of rain.

Among the exhibits inside were coins from that time period (halfpennies), belt buckles and musket balls. Visitors could look at combatants’ uniforms on life-sized mannequins and see the differences between what the Americans and the British wore. They also could also see the similarities, such as the heavy woolen fabric they were made of. On one wall hung a picture of King George III of England. On another was an American flag with 15 stars.

Outside, visitors could step back into the world of the early 1800s. They could try turning a ship’s wheel and they could see what was cooking inside a huge black cauldron hanging over a wood fire. They could put their heads in the stocks.

Military re-enactors walked around wearing things like boots with silver buttons, top hats and jackets with tails. One re-enactor taught children how to fence, using wooden swords. Others periodically fired a cannon.

Under a large awning, a man and a woman sang songs from the period. “This song is called “Yankee Tars,” the man explained to the listening crowd. “But it actually goes back to the 17th century under a different name.” He led them in singing the refrain of “Down, derry down.”

“This is great,” said Flo Huston, who was there with her great-grandson. “They’re wonderful festivities.”

Aaron Marcavitch, executive director of the Anacostia Trails Heritage Area, was pleased with the turnout. “It’s one of those things where you have a battlefield that doesn’t exist and a story that doesn’t get told or isn’t told in a good light. But to have this many people come out now is a good start. The real bicentennial of the battle isn’t until 2014 so we have a year and a half more.

“We can learn as much from losses as from wins. What came out of the Battle of Bladensburg is the awareness that we needed a real standing army. That’s the long-term impact.”